Walking in Europe is the most revealing way to explore the pulse of such a diverse continent but also the most revivifying. There are walks which one may design oneself according to the predilections of an itinerary. There are walks along allotted rights of way, and in many parts of Europe, the rules on walkers' access to private land is far more relaxed than it is in Britain. But there are walks that hail from an older past too: many of these are the pilgrim routes that pilgrims took to reach their holy sites, their shrines and their inner epiphanies and to achieve penance, consolation or spiritual reawakening. Indeed some of the earliest walkers and trekkers - those who understood the delights and demands of the long walk - were, of course, pilgrims. Some of these walks have in recent years been revived and the routes given recognition and signage.
Pilgrimages have been common in most religions, and a physical journey through varied countryside, involving pleasure, fatigue and exercise, serves as a metaphor for the journey through life (see notably John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress). They are usually journeys to places associated with celebrated figures in the story of the church - often these places house the physical remains or relics of holy figures, particularly when those figures had acquired a reputation for curing illnesses. In some cases, pre-Christian sites such as wells and groves of trees had never lost their holiness, and churches and shrines were often built on or around them.
In Britain and many other western countries, most of the pilgrimage 'industry' was swept away with the Reformation, and relics and roods were destroyed. By the nineteenth century, many churches in Britain were in poor condition and were substantially renovated, restored or even rebuilt. Ironically, the 'Gothic revival' of the 19th century often obliterated genuine medieval remnants. Although these have been revived, the traditions of pilgrimage are far thinner on the ground than in continental Europe. But many of the pilgrim routes in Europe can be traced to their starting points in the UK.
A walker planning a long walk through Europe can feast on the pilgrim pathways that in many cases are also maintained as one of its cultural and touristic endeavours. These walks have the advantage of being richly endowed with historic connections and sites of fascinating historical interest. So successful have they been that all sorts of other routes exploring certain European themes such as the olive culture or the life of Mozart have been created. A European Cultural Route is a title awarded to cultural routes recognised as significant throughout Europe by the Council of Europe. The European Institute of Cultural Routes is the body established to help the Council of Europe co-ordinate the development of these routes.
The Way of St James has existed for over a thousand years. It was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages during medieval times. It was considered one of three pilgrimages on which all sins could be forgiven; the others were the Via Francigena to Rome and the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Legend holds that St. James's (St. Iago's) remains were carried by boat from Jerusalem to northern Spain where they were buried on the site of what is now the city of Santiago de Compostela. During the middle ages, the route was highly travelled. However, the Black Plague, the Protestant Reformation and political unrest in 16th-century Europe resulted in its decline. Until the 1980s, only a few pilgrims arrived in Santiago annually and the routes had become indistinct. Since its recent resuscitation, the route has attracted a growing number of modern-day pilgrims from around the globe.
Pilgrims on the Way of St. James walk for weeks or months to visit the city of Santiago de Compostela. They can follow many routes (any path to Santiago is a pilgrim's path) but the most popular route is the French Way or the Camino Francés. The most common starting points on the Camino Francés are Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees or Roncesvalles on the Spanish side. However, many pilgrims begin further afield, in one of the four French towns which are common and traditional starting points: Le Puy, Vézelay, Arles and Tours were named in the 12th century Pilgrim's Guide by Aimery Picaud as the assembly points for pilgrims coming from Europe. Each of these was the site of a shrine celebrated in its own right, at which the pilgrims would worship before proceeding. The stages of the routes were marked by further shrines competing for patronage and for relics, for the interest of the pilgrims, and the business they brought with them. Monasteries and pilgrim hospices were built along the way to minister to the needs of pilgrims. The glories of Romanesque architecture and sculpture still mark these and other minor routes that parallel or converge on them. Cluny, site of the celebrated medieval abbey, was another important rallying point for pilgrims, and, in 2002, it was integrated into the official European pilgrimage route linking Vézelay and Le Puy. Some pilgrims start from even further away, though their routes will often pass through one of the four French towns mentioned. Some Europeans begin their pilgrimage from the very doorstep of their homes as their medieval counterparts would have done.
Pagan influences can still be seen along the Way. One legend has it that walking the route was a pagan fertility ritual; this is one explanation for the scallop shell being a symbol of the pilgrimage, the scallop being a symbol of birth. An alternative interpretation is that the scallop, which resembles the setting sun, was the focus of pre-Christian Celtic rituals of the area. That is to say, the pre-Christian origin of the Way of St. James was a Celtic death journey, westwards towards the setting sun, terminating at the End of the World (Finisterra) on the "Coast of Death" (Costa de Morta). The reference to St. James rescuing a "knight covered in scallops" is a reference to St. James healing, or resurrecting, a dying (setting sun) knight.
It is still possible to follow these medieval routes without too much trouble, though some of the original footpaths have become modern roads. They pass through some of the most beautiful, historic and interesting countryside in France and Spain, before arriving in the Celtic region of Galicia bordering the Atlantic.
The Paris route runs via Orléans, Tours, Poitiers, St Jean-d'Angély, Bordeaux and Dax. It has largely disappeared under tarmac, and is not really recommended for people setting out on the pilgrimage for the first time, although a Confraternity guide has been published on a walkers' route that includes the main towns and places of interest mentioned in the Pilgrim's Guide.
The route from Vézelay runs via Bourges or Nevers to St Léonard-de-Noblat, then to Limoges and Périgueux before crossing the Dordogne river at Ste Foy-la-Grande. Thereafter it goes via la Réole, Bazas, Mont-de-Marsan and Orthez to St Jean-Pied-de-Port. It is not very difficult for the walker, and there is more and more accommodation for the pilgrim, because local associations of Amis de Saint-Jacques have been working hard in recent years to put it in place.
The le Puy route, which passes through Conques, Figeac, Cahors and Moissac before reaching St Jean-Pied-de-Port in the foothills of the Pyrenees, is the best developed.
Quite recently, the Association Rhône-Alpes des Amis de Saint-Jacques has extended this route back to Geneva making the link to the route from Nürnberg to Konstanz and across Switzerland
The Arles route runs directly westward from Arles parallel with the Pyrenees, linking Montpellier, Lodève, Castres, Toulouse and Auch: here it turns south-west to Oloron Sainte-Marie, and then south up the Gave d'Aspe to cross the Pyrenees by the Somport pass. The route, mainly following the GR653, is flat as it crosses the Camargue as far as Montpellier, and fairly rugged thereafter
The first three of the French routes meet just north of St Jean Pied-de-Port in the foothills of the Pyrenees, which the path then crosses via the valley of Roncesvalles (some 740 km from Santiago). The Arles route crosses the mountains by the Somport pass (840 km from Santiago) to Jaca, and joins the other route at Puente la Reina, a little south-west of Pamplona. Thereafter the Camino Francés runs through Logroño to Burgos; then across the Castillian meseta to León; and finally over two more mountain ranges to reach Galicia. There is accommodation for pilgrims at frequent intervals all along this route, and it is thoroughly marked.
By 1100, the route of the Camino Francés must have been largely as we know it today. As other parts of Spain were recaptured by the Spaniards from the Moors, routes from there will have started to be used, no doubt using existing roads as available, such as the Via de la Plata, an important N-S Roman road. The Vía de la Plata is now a more peaceful alternative to the rather crowded traditional route. It runs north from Seville via old tracks and roman roads to join the Camino francés at Astorga (734 km from Seville). It is well marked, and there is adequate accommodation, though very few hostels. A variant route, the Via Sanabriense, which runs directly through Galicia via Puebla de Sanabria and Ourense is also fully marked. The Camino Mozárabe runs from Granada to join the Via de la Plata at Mérida. The Camino Portugues de la Vía de la Plata, a variant route from Zamora, runs through the northern part of Portugal, via Bragança and Verín, to rejoin the Via Sanabriense at Ourense. The much shorter Camino Inglés runs from La Coruña and Ferrol to Santiago: it is the route which British and other pilgrims arriving from northern countries by sea followed to reach Santiago. The waymarking is slowly being improved on the two main branches of this route.
The route from Madrid runs via Segovia to join the Camino Francés at Sahagún. The Cami de Llevant or Camino de Levante runs from Valencia via Albacete, Toledo, Avila and Zamora to Santiago.
Canterbury is the start of another celebrated medieval pilgrim route, this time to Rome. Archbishops of Canterbury in particular were expected to make the journey to Rome to receive from the Pope their palium or stole of office.
In AD 994 Archbishop Sigeric made the journey in person and kept a detailed record of his return journey called 'From Rome to the Channel'. This document was rediscovered in the 1990s by Italian researchers and the Archbishop's descriptions of places along the route have been shown to be very accurate.
This discovery generated academic research, tourism promotion and, in some cases, restoration of the actual route for modern walkers. The route is generally referred to as the Via Francigena (the route of the French/Franks) or the Via Romea (the road to Rome).
In 1994 the Via Francigena was designated a European Cultural Itinerary too. In 2006 the Italian association of Via Francigena towns - with the approval of the European Institute of Cultural Routes, an arm of the Council of Europe - expanded its activities into a European association, Associazione Europea delle Vie Francigene, including Canterbury and its twin city Reims.
Major Cultural Route of the Council of Europe
For further information visit the European Insitute of Cultural Routes website
Cultural Route of the Council of Europe
© Isabella Thomas. All views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to the European Commission.